LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — The Golden Knights believe they’re a resilient group. And their series against the Winnipeg Jets is seven games. The suggestion is not to panic.
“We wanted to come out here and make a statement in Game 1,” center Jack Eichel said Tuesday after his Knights were surprised 5-1 in the opener of a first-round Western Conference playoff series against Winnipeg. “We weren’t able to do that. But we have a resilient group here, and we’ll be ready.”
The loss before 18,006 at T-Mobile Arena was a bit of a surprise. The Knights are the top seed in the West and had won all three regular-season games against the Jets. But Winnipeg was a bit more prepared this time, said right wing Blake Wheeler, who had a goal and two assists.
Wheeler said in two previous losses at T-Mobile, the Knights came out flying, overwhelmed the Jets. “It took us awhile to find our game,” he said. This time, the Jets were ready for an early push and pushed back themselves. “It was the way we wanted to play,” Wheeler said of an effort that limited the home team to 17 shots on goal, including two in the final period.
“A big part of our game is to pressure the puck carrier and to stay above, not give them a whole lot of time to make plays, try to eliminate them on the rush,” Jets coach Rick Bowness said, explaining their approach. “They’re a very good team on the rush, with their delays and their look for that second wave.”
The Jets stopped the Knights on the rush by bottling up the middle, managing the puck superbly and getting their forwards to backcheck with a passion.
Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois scored 62 seconds apart early in the second for Winnipeg. Connor converted a one-timer on a pass from Dubois, who got past Eichel’s check on the wall for the feed.
DuBois’ goal came on a partial break on the left side when the Knights were caught on a line change. Wheeler chipped the puck out of the Jets’ zone, and DuBois charged in on goaltender Laurent Brossoit, beating him with a wicked wrist shot on the short side.
“We got two opportunities and put two in. Just like that, you’re up 2-0 and they’re chasing the game now,” Dubois said.
On the play that freed Dubois, Wheeler said he recognized both teams were changing. “I just wanted to get the puck out and get off the ice myself,” Wheeler said. “I felt like getting the puck out and toward their net was going to be a good play.”
The Jets made a number of strong plays, including Wheeler’s goal early in the third that restored a two-goal lead. William Karlsson had the Knights’ lone goal at 15:49 in the second period, juicing the home crowd and providing some momentum.
But Wheeler scored 3:53 into the third on a backhand after a scramble, and the Knights failed to respond. Checking center Adam Lowry, who had a strong game, scored twice late in the third, including on a power play at 19:41.
Captain Mark Stone, appearing in his first game after a long layoff because of back surgery, described the Knights as stubborn, trying to force plays too often through the middle. The first two goals by Winnipeg, he thought, were a result of such inflexibility.
“Look at their goals,” he said. Turnovers. … I think we were a little stubborn, right? We tried to keep pushing through the middle, through the neutral zone … They do a good job of clogging up the middle of the ice.”
So the Knights might have been better served with some patience, Stone said. “Maybe do a better job of holding onto the puck, getting some O-zone time. ”
Knights coach Bruce Cassidy thought his team was a bit undisciplined, somewhat sloppy and, for some reason, lacked energy.
“We knew they weren’t going to give up much,” Cassidy said of Winnipeg’s defensive scheme. “That is what they are. We learned a lesson in that.”
Cassidy expected more effort on the forecheck, more speed through the neutral zone and more energy.
“You need an intensity level that was greater than what we had,” he said. “I can’t remember a lot of O-zone play were we got in there and stressed them out. … there were a couple of shifts here and there, but not nearly enough.
“That’s what you got to do.”
Such uneven performances by home teams in opening games was a playoff storyline for the league. In the West, second-seed Edmonton, Dallas and Colorado all lost their series openers. In the East, Toronto and New Jersey were losers on home ice.
As for Game 2 (7 p.m. Thursday, TBS, AT&T SportsNet), the Knights figure they’ll respond.
“It’s a seven-game series,” Eichel said. “We just got to come back and be better next game.”
Admittedly rusty in his first game since Jan. 12, Stone seemed confident.
“We’ve been in this position before,” he said. “We got enough veteran guys here, guys who have won at this level to turn this ship around.”